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Interview: David Digby, solo mode designer and developer for Undaunted: Reinforcements, Merv, Waggle Dance and many more.

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in May 2021. —WEM

In this month's Diagonal Move interview, we take a look behind the scenes of board game development with solo mode designer and developer, David Digby.

DM: Thanks for joining us today, David. In recent years, you have developed a growing reputation as a designer of solo modes for games such as Dice Theme Park, Chocolate Factory, and Undaunted. However, you are also involved in the "background" of the board game industry as a developer and rule book editor. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself, and how you first became involved in the industry?

DD: Hey there, I'm David Digby, a board game designer and developer based in Essex in the UK. Outside of games, I work in theater as a technical manager, coach cricket, and play golf. Clichéd as it sounds, I've been playing games since childhood; my Mum was a keen board gamer and I took up the mantle. Typical story of family games, D&D, and Magic until I discovered there was a lot more out there at university. When I stopped playing cricket three years ago, I decided to get back into board games properly, joined Facebook groups and local clubs, and the rest, they say, is history.

Board Game: Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road

DM: A rulebook editor is surely one of the unsung heroes of the industry. Can you describe the role in more detail, and what makes a good rulebook from your point of view?

DD: I was incredibly lucky to learn under Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules! I started just proofreading, then Paul started to ask me to edit rulebooks under his supervision, and then on my own. Paul is one of the best in the business, and I try my best to follow his methods and systems in the work I do now.

Most rulebooks follow a similar structure, and I've learnt the types of games I can do a good job of. Good rulebooks teach you the game and allow you to find things once you're playing. Sounds simple, and it really isn't. We start with the designer's rulebook as a Google Doc, hack it about, rewrite a lot of it, then it goes to a graphic designer for a layout PDF, then we go through it all with a fine-tooth comb, adding images and examples, etc. It can easily take 10-20 hours for the small-medium sized games I do.

DM: You have been a "developer" on games such as Villagers and Waggle Dance. Game developer is a far less high-profile role than game designer despite some similarities in function. How do the designer/developer roles differ?

DD: There are many definitions, and it very much depends on what the relationship is like between the designer, the publisher, and the developer. Generally speaking, as a developer I'm hired by the publisher to playtest and tweak an existing design to take it from whatever state the designer got it to to something that the publisher can produce. A developer will often change small elements of a game without making big changes to the core feel. Sometimes the designer produces only a cool idea, and the development work is very involved.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

DM: How does game development differ from playtesting? Can you walk us through the development process for one of the projects you have been involved in as a developer compared to one where your involvement has been limited to that of a playtester?

DD: A playtester plays the game, often multiple times, to produce results and give opinions. The developer runs the playtesting process — collecting all the info and deciding what merits thinking about and what doesn't — and suggests changes to improve the game based on the playtesters' feedback. Development involves a lot of playtesting, particularly early on, and later involves it much more analysis and fine tuning.

A lot of the work I do for Dávid Turczi is playtesting. I'll play the solo mode a bunch of times and give feedback on what worked, what didn't, what was fun, how many points were scored how etc. Perseverance was a good example of that as I played that quite a lot, and my nagging won through in the end when Episode 2 got changed to asymmetrical AI opponents, but I didn't do much of the design work with that one.

Something like Merv for Osprey Games was more of a development job as I played the game a few times, then sent in a few small changes that I felt would improve the solo experience. I then played those changes with a few adjustments and that's what we went with. Like a lot of solo games, though, I must have got too good at it as a lot of people have struggled to win it since it came out.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Gaming during the coronavirus pandemic has seen a growing focus on solitaire modes, digital versions, and online interaction. How has this altered the game design and development process in terms of both games scheduled for development and the process itself?

DD: Almost all of my work has moved onto Tabletop Simulator. Since March 2020, I have logged almost 1,800 hours on Tabletop Simulator! A large crop of online testing groups have sprung up; I moderate one of them, and they have built great communities for playtesting, but it's not without its challenges. Luckily I have a few friends who enjoy testing and don't mind playing the same things a lot.

Having previously had only my own Facebook page, I now run a Discord server which organizes all my testing and development. There's just short of one hundred people on it now, which is great. It can be really tough, though. Games are meant to be social experiences, and solo modes can make a nice change but spending all day (and I mean all day as my days are often 12-15 hours) on TTS can be very draining. I'm not that computer smart, but I can make my own mods, limited more by my infamously terrible graphic design, and it's the go-to for almost everyone now.

I think solo has been on the climb for some time, and hopefully it doesn't slow down anytime soon. Publishers are making more of an effort; more designers and developers are learning the skills; and players are still able to connect through social media.

It will be great to get back to in-person testing for a lot of games, but the way we work has changed forever.

Board Game: Scrumpy: Card Cider

DM: You have a growing list of solo mode credits to your name. What qualities do you feel a great solo game needs?

DD: I identify solo games into three categories: puzzle, challenge, and opponent. However, I see these as a Venn diagram with a lot of overlap. Only rarely does a design fall entirely into one category. Puzzles have a single solution that the player is tasked with finding. Challenges give the player a framework to see how well they can do. Opponents simulate another player or two that you need to beat. Designing the right solo mode for the right game is really key.

Undaunted obviously has to be an opponent. It is a very strong two-player experience with a lot of interaction, which is perfect for building an AI or bot or Automa. Chocolate Factory or Dice Theme Park are low interaction and the fun of the game is in what you do entirely independent from other players, so they require a more challenge style. I like operating in the grey areas or the overlaps between the categories as I see them. Whatever it takes to bring the best out in the game for the solo player.

Board Game: Undaunted: Reinforcements

DM: When designing a solo mode as opposed to a dedicated solitaire game, what process do you follow for recreating the multiplayer experience?

DD: I've never tried a solo-only game, so I'm not much use in comparing the two, but I imagine a lot of things are very similar. I did mentor someone who was designing a solo-only design and found a lot of the principals I use still apply. First thing I do is play the game a few times at two-player. Work out how strong that is, find the really important bits of interaction, and work out how to best abstract stuff out. It's a fine balance — you want most of the fun to be on the player's turn, which means simplifying things for the bot so you don't have lots of complex stuff to do is key. But abstract too much and it doesn't feel right. It's about finding the right bits to do and not do.

Dávid Turczi is the master of this; some games he can do after less than one play, which is bewilderingly impressive. It takes me a lot longer! Working with him on Undaunted was great. When I came on board, he had already built a core system based on a few scenarios. We talk a lot about flow charts in solo design; the more spatial or tactical a game, the more flowcharts you need, and Undaunted was a lot of little flow charts. If this is true, do this. If not do this, and so on. My job was to design all the little flow charts for all the troops in all the scenarios. I think there's around 36 scenarios, two sides in each, and on average around six troop types. That's around 432 flow charts to work out and test! Now a lot of them are the same, but getting them all right was really important. There's some pretty good fan-made solo modes out there, but because they don't change regardless of the scenarios, they aren't as smart or as accurate as the ones we created.

I played each scenario at least four times to get the instructions right, and some were harder than others. Spurred on by Anthony, a developer at Osprey, and Dávid saying that I didn't need to do them all from both sides if it was too hard, I finally cracked them all. Anthony then did an incredible job of fitting all my notes onto a card-based system, and the Undaunted solo was born.

There are never any shortcuts in solo design — you have to play the game a lot. Most of the time that means finding lots of testers, but on this one it was just me. Credit to Osprey for investing that heavily in the solo mode!

DM: In addition to the development and solo-mode design roles, you are working on several original designs. Can you tell us more about these?

DD: I can, but if any get published is a different question! I have absolutely no intention of self publishing anything ever, so I'm very reliant on a publisher picking up my designs. I am working on a few things directly for publishers, which I'm hopeful for, but it means I can't talk about them!

"The Seven Dwarves" was my first design, and I still enjoy playing it. It was popular at UK cons, but there's a few things stopping it being publishable right now. I've just re-themed my multi-use card drafting game to be about social media, so perhaps that'll give it a new lease of life. I've agreed to bring some co-designers in on some ideas, like "Rock Band", a real-time co-op, and "Theatre Land", a tableau builder, to try to take them to the next level. I think my gateway-plus "Octopus" game deserves to get made; it's about finding the right market for it. I have a design inspired by my work with Martin Wallace that's been going well, but that's quite early. There's a handful on my drawing board, too, but it's all too easy to get waylaid with development or solo design work.

DM: Can you tell us more about some of the forthcoming projects you are working on?

DD: Err, let me think what I'm allowed to talk about! The three titles from Alley Cat Games that have been on Kickstarter recently all feature my solo modes, and I was a lot more involved with Tinners' Trail. Bright Eye Games, an offshoot of PSC, are re-releasing Waggle Dance and publishing its new sequel Termite Towers, both by Mike Nudd, and I've done the solo for those. Scrumpy has just been on Kickstarter and Distilled is coming soon, two booze-themed games from smaller publishers. Two games that have just been announced are Ruthless and Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan. I don't think I can mention any others yet, but there's always plenty going on!

Board Game: Dice Theme Park

DM: Finally, do you have any advice for anyone looking to enter the games industry?

DD: Give it a punt, but don't expect to earn big bucks. There is an enormous variety of skills within the industry so you can probably find something, but it's really, really hard to make a living out of it. The community is extremely friendly and helpful, for the most part, and advice and information is everywhere, so use it. Much like theater, the industry is very small and pretty close; most people know most people, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Do the stuff you enjoy and see where it leads.

More details regarding David's design work can be found on The Games People.
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